Sprinting is highly technical. Elite sprinters are coached on every aspect of their sport. Aside from starting technique, learning how to accelerate to top speed is one of the most difficult skills. 
 
Pulling a sled can improve your sprinting speed and create an anabolic environment conducive to burning fat and gaining muscle. In this article, I will discuss what the research says about using sled pulls to build explosive sprinting strength.
 

Sled Pulls Improve Acceleration

Acceleration is important for most sports, and sled pulls are commonly used to improve it. Alcaraz and colleagues (2014)1 tested Scandinavian national sprinters. One group did normal sprint sessions. A second group towed a sled. The program lasted four weeks, and both groups did similar amounts of work. 
 
Following the training, the sled group increased contact time with the ground, which means they had more time to exert force. They also improved their stride length. Both of these measures are associated with faster acceleration. The sled group also increased maximal speed by about 1.3 percent. These are well-trained athletes, so the effects could be even more significant in athletes with less training. 
 

More Load Isn’t Better

When pulling a weighted sled, you have to make sure you don’t lose your sprinting technique. If you load the sled with too much weight, you won’t be sprinting anymore – you’ll be walking. Walking with a heavy load might have benefits, but it does not improve sprint acceleration as much as a lesser load. 
 
A study by Winwood and colleagues (2016)5 trained rugby athletes with sled pulls. One of the research team’s goals was to find out how weight improved maximal acceleration. The researchers found that sled pulls with 75 percent of the athlete’s body weight worked better than 150 percent. 
 
I always liked this quotation from Yuri Verkoshansky on adding more weight:
 
“Additional weight will increase the magnitude of maximum strength effort, but will decrease the speed of its development during push off. In this way, the exercise will have lost its main advantage… [This] can be compared to those zealots who follow the principle: instead to take 15 drops of medicine two times per day, it’s better to drink the whole bottle immediately.”
 
Adding more weight on sled pulls and pushes might be great for absolute strength. Dan John has long been an advocate of sled pushes or pulls as one of his loaded carry movements. But remember, we are talking about how sled pulls affect sprinting. Adding more weight will likely help maximal strength development, but it might not be as helpful for maximal speed.
 
sprinting with a sled
When using sled pulls to build speed, use a load that allows you to keep sprinting.
 

When and How to Recover

As many of you know, sled pulls can be demanding. West and colleagues (2013)4 looked at biological changes following sled pulls. They found that testosterone increased by 38 percent fifteen minutes after the pulls. It was also elevated the next day. The lack of creatine kinase following the workout suggested there was no significant muscle damage. The authors suggested this movement does not lead to muscle breakdown because it is primarily concentric in nature. 
 
Keep in mind, sprinting more than than 25 meters with the sled can cause a breakdown in form, so allow a good amount of rest between sets. I would suggest between 3-6 minutes to allow the alactic system to recover. 
 

The Takeaways

  • Sled pulls with 75 percent of your body weight can lead to greater acceleration in sprints.
  • Longer rests between sets will allow for better recovery. 
  • Heavy sled pushes or pulls might be good for absolute strength, but they aren’t as good for sprinting. 
  • The key is to choose a weight and distance that does not cause a breakdown in running technique. Make sure you can maintain proper running form for up to 25 meters. 

 

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References
1. Alcaraz, P. E., Elvira, J. L. L., & Palao, J. M. (2014). Kinematic, strength, and stiffness adaptations after a short-term sled towing training in athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 24(2), 279–290. 
2. Alcaraz, P. E., Palao, J. M., Elvira, J. L. L., & Linthorne, N. P. (2008). Effects of Three Types of Resisted Sprint Training Devices on the Kinematics of Sprinting at Maximum VelocityJournal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(3), 890–897. 
3. Maulder, P. S., Bradshaw, E. J., & Keogh, J. W. (2008). Kinematic Alterations Due to Different Loading Schemes in Early Acceleration Sprint Performance From Starting BlocksJournal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(6), 1992–2002.
4. West, D. J., Cunningham, D. J., Finn, C. V., Scott, P. M., Crewther, B. T., Cook, C. J., & Kilduff, L. P. (2014). The metabolic, hormonal, biochemical, and neuromuscular function responses to a backward sled drag training session. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 28(1), 265–272.
5. Winwood, P. W., Posthumus, L. R., Cronin, J. B., & Keogh, J. W. L. (2016). The Acute Potentiating Effects of Heavy Sled Pulls on Sprint PerformanceJournal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1. 
 
Teaser photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo 1 courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.
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